A Yi: ‘The police station is just like a theatre stage’

Policeman-turned-author A Yi talks about his first, chilling crime novel

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Sporting a rather scruffy boy-band hairstyle, youthful-looking A Yi creates the impression that he has just rocked up from an all-night party, or perhaps more likely, an all-night editing session. The softly spoken Beijing-based writer, real name Ai Guozhu, takes his work very seriously, having made the unorthodox career switch from police officer to full-time writer in 2008. You might not have heard of him yet, but you will – his first novel, published in Chinese in 2012, has just been translated into English, adding to a growing portfolio of English translations, including short stories in The Guardian and his published collection of essays called Guaren (The Petty Thief). His extremely direct writing style has yet to grow to high levels of prominence in China, but his edgy, unsentimental approach has been gathering a steady stream of fans in literary circles, as well as among an English-language audience.

With the English title A Perfect Crime, his first novel centres on the vicious and seemingly pointless murder of a young female student, with the only motive a chilling desire to escape relentless boredom. The killer displays no remorse, no empathy, only a desire to pick a victim that will create the biggest social outrage. As the unnamed narrator muses, ‘If I hadn’t committed a murder so intolerable to our hypocritical society, what would have been the point?’ This is a crime novel that races at breakneck speed to the darkest depths of human nature.

Where did you get the inspiration for A Perfect Crime?

The inspiration for this book was derived from an actual case that happened in 2006 – a high school student murdered his female classmate for no apparent reason, claiming he just wanted to experience the feeling of being on the run from the police. I was so intrigued when I read the news report – the murderer was someone who had no interest at all in his future. Through the years I was working on this book, I just kept wondering why he would commit such a hideous crime.

My main character’s existence is like a plastic bag that’s floating mid-air. The Chinese title of the book Now, What Shall I Do Next? (Xiamian, Wo Gai Gan Xie Shenme?,下面, 该干些什么?) was drawn from this idea of the main character’s self-questioning when he’s bored. He deliberately picks a pretty, talented musician as his victim, from a humble background, because he knows it will draw out more condemnation and anger in society, and the police will put more effort into capturing him. This need to act to cure boredom reminded me of the taxi driver who needed to do something just to occupy his free time in the film Taxi Driver, or the evil Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

You worked as a police officer before becoming a writer. Did that inform your novel?

I came across many cases of crime when working for the police, some directly and some through files. The works that I’ve written over the past five or six years have not quite deviated from these themes of murder and crime. I suppose that just like in the forest, every animal has its own territory, and it’s the same for literature.

I think one of the most important tasks when writing a new story is to mould the character’s personality – to really understand people that you commonly meet in society. While working at the police station, I’d really come to understand the habits and mindset of rural people. They live in villages or towns and only come to the police station when they are harmed or have harmed someone. The police station is just like a theatre stage, telling each person’s story.

How did you get into the perspective of a character who is devoid of empathy and remorse?

I used two methods to help get into the character. Firstly I drew inspiration from crime novels like Albert Camus’s The Stranger and James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. These books leave out the emotions of the main characters and instead focus on portraying emotional indifference.

Secondly, I drew on my own experiences. I’ve experienced a period of great boredom and loneliness – I think many people have. For a few years, I was in that state of being alone and single. I had a night-shift job, so it was during the pre-dawn hours that I was very much awake and in the day, I would sleep. It was as though I had lost contact with the world.

During this time, I would only do something when I really had to. I had no friends. I was very lonely. I remember wanting to just do anything exciting at all. I had just resigned from my police job and had gone to a faraway city to take on the role of a night-shift editor, so I really had no idea how to help myself.


How long did it take to move on after finishing this book?

I spent half a year actually writing this book, but the thought process took at least four years before that. And six years on from the first text, looking at the finished book now, I still find that it has a lot of things that I want to improve. I would really like to thank my English translator Anna [Holmwood]; it was because of her writing flair that I think the English edition has really improved on the original.

I’m still working on the next Chinese edition of A Perfect Crime, and I want to make sure it is improved, even though the next edition will only print 12,000 copies. I’m not doing it for profits, but I would like it to become recognised as a literary work and retain its value for a long time to come.

A Perfect Crime is available on amazon.cn for 100RMB

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